Deep into post-production on John Wick, their inaugural outing as first-unit directors after 15 years doing stunts, action, and second-unit work, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch had a problem.
They’d set out to make an action movie about an ex-assassin, John Wick, who comes out of retirement to seek revenge, reentering a universe of killers hidden within the folds of New York City. The world has its own etiquette, aesthetic, and traditions, and Wick must shoot his way through plenty of faceless henchmen, and a few more recognizable faces, to reach his quarry, the son of Wick’s former mobster boss.
But from the start, they wanted to make a different kind of movie than your typical genre fare. One, their main character, played by Keanu Reeves, barely spoke. Two, their film was full of heavily choreographed, almost balletic long takes, with barely any close-ups, and none of the disorienting handheld camerawork that had come to define modern action cinema. And three: There was the issue of John Wick’s motivation for the cold-blooded vengeance that he brings down upon his enemies, which had resulted in, what they were now discovering, a very dark movie.
At the time, they had no idea that John Wick would become one of the most surprising and electric breakout hits in recent memory, an object lesson in Hollywood’s blind spots that was passed over at every stage of its existence, and a testament to the effect that originality can still have on a viewing public used to being spoon-fed the same flavor over and over. In fact, they didn’t even have a distributor yet. Instead, sitting in an editing room, they had a stark realization, which Stahelski put to Vulture like this:
“We were like, ‘Oh my god. We killed a puppy.’”
By Derek Kolstad’s own admission, he had written something like “50 or 60 screenplays” before John Wick, which began life as a script called Scorn. Originally from Madison, Wisconsin, Kolstad had gone to business school and worked as a sales consultant before making the journey out to Los Angeles to try his hand at screenwriting. He got representation, a few credits, and eventually, after watching a bunch of recent revenge films that left him cold, the germ of the idea that would eventually become John Wick, which he drew from one of his favorite movies, the John Frankenheimer–Robert de Niro spy thriller Ronin.
Kolstad made the main character a guy in his early 70s who seeks revenge after the murder of his 18-year-old dog, the last gift from his wife before she died. “You still had the Continental, you had the gold coins, you had the various assassins,” Kolstad says, referencing the elaborate mythology that underlies the world of John Wick. “But I swear the body count in Scorn was maybe 12 people.”
At that point, his agent started shopping the script. According to Kolstad, there were a handful of offers on the table, but they ended up opting for the lowest bid, from Basil Iwanyk’s Thunder Road, the only buyer interested in making the film quickly. The company’s films include Ben Affleck’s The Town, Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, and Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River, which recently screened at Sundance. Like John Wick, all of these movies take genres that might seem run-of-the-mill — bank-heist movie, drug-war movie, murder-investigation movie — and infuse them with a sense of style and spectacle.
Iwanyk says he acquired John Wick for “pennies, relative to what people buy scripts for,” on the strength of two aspects. The first was Kolstad’s tone, which brought a sparse, absurdist bent to the form of the revenge thriller. And second, of course, he responded to the dog.
“In a lot of action movies, it’s a slightly esoteric way of getting into the movie. It’s always something very, ‘The world is coming to an end,’ ‘Bombs are going to go off in London,’ something like that,” Iwanyk says. “I thought this was so banal and so domestic and so understandable, so empathetic. People would understand it; even people who don’t like action movies could get the sense of like, ‘Okay, I’m trying to live my life, I’m just trying to mind my own business. My wife or my husband or someone I love gives something to me before they die, and that thing is taken from me by a bunch of assholes.’ You’re going to go, ‘Yeah, I want to fight back.’ There was something very simple about that.”
As Iwanyk was figuring out what to do with his new acquisition, he heard that Keanu Reeves was looking for an action role. Reeves had been on something of a cold streak prior to 2014; while his directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, had come out to solid reviews in 2013, it didn’t make any money at the box office, and 47 Ronin, a $175 million samurai epic, had only pulled in $38 million domestically that same year (though it managed more than $100 million overseas, a testament to Reeves’s international stature). While Reeves will forever be Neo in the minds of most fans, the Matrix trilogy was a decade behind him, and he had yet to find a role since that could take advantage of his unique blend of soft and hard, quiet and loud.
Even though the character was still an old man at that point, Iwanyk sent Reeves the script. “I love me a good revenge tale, the quiet guy who’s unassuming and turns out to have issues,” Reeves would later recall. He and Kolstad went about revising the script to bring the character more in line with his star image. Drawing from inspirations like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, they cut paragraphs and paragraphs of dialogue. Kolstad describes a scene in a church, where Wick encounters a priest. In his first draft, Wick and the priest went back and forth debating morality. By the time he and Reeves were done with it, that discussion had turned into one line of dialogue: “Uh-huh.”
The next step was to find a director. Thunder Road brought in a number of candidates, but most of them had the same idea: The bad guys couldn’t just kill the dog, they needed to murder Wick’s entire family. For Iwanyk and Kolstad, that was completely missing the point. Meanwhile, Iwanyk and Reeves already had a couple of guys in mind to handle the second-unit direction and action design. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch had a career in action and stunts dating back to the 1990s, and both men had worked on the Matrix franchise, Stahelski as Reeves’s stunt double; Stahelski describes working for the Wachowskis on the trilogy as the “Harvard of film schools.”
“As we were coming up, Dave and I always wanted to direct. You kind of zone out — you start doing all your action directing, you really love doing what you’re doing, and then it gets to that point in your career where you’re like, I’d like to move on, but how do I evolve?” Stahelski says.
One day, Reeves called Stahelski out of nowhere and asked him to take a look at John Wick. “Literally, the guy didn’t talk for the first 25 pages, and it was just all descriptive,” Stahelski says. “It’s about a guy who pretty much goes on a rampage over his dog. It didn’t quite have the mythological layers or the tone that we ended up giving it, but it was super-simple, and there was something that stuck with you. When the character said something, there was an etiquette to it, there was a language to it.”
Stahelski told Reeves that he and Leitch were interested — but they wanted to direct it. They pitched a version infused with the framework of myth, likening the characters to Greek gods. They showed him a mock-up, using their company’s stunt team, of what they intended the film to look like, and they proposed upping the body count considerably. And where the other directors had wanted to do away with the dog as catalyst, Stahelski and Leitch had a different idea. They wanted to make the old dog a puppy.
“Chad and Dave came in and they had a very comprehensive presentation,” Iwanyk says. “I mean it was one of the better presentations I’ve seen from a director in my entire career, and I was like, God, this is great. I walked away thinking, How the hell am I going to convince Keanu that this is going to work? Because he knows these guys. Chad was his stuntman. You know, familiarity breeds a little bit of contempt. As we were trying to figure out what we were going to do, Keanu calls me and is like, ‘Listen, I want to respect the process and respect your decision, but I met with Chad and Dave and they have some interesting ideas. I think they could be cool to be first-unit director.’ And I’m like, ‘Great idea! Perfect.’”
So why a puppy, then? “We just thought a puppy was a more manipulative way to shock the audience,” Stahelski said, laughing.
It’s hard to describe just how different John Wick felt when it came out in 2014. By that point, the only mainstream genre that still seemed to have energy was horror; action had stagnated into drek like A Good Day to Die Hard, Parker, and Bullet to the Head. While the rare exception would break through (Pierre Morel’s Taken in 2009), those exceptions would then breed immediate familiarity, with the concept immediately commodified into B-movie uniformity (every old-guy revenge movie post-Taken). At the same time, studio action movies had grown so aggressively in scale and budget that they had to be able to play both domestically and overseas, to as wide an audience as possible; that meant intellectual property familiar to mainstream moviegoers, as well as a visual style comprised of heavy doses of CGI, frenetic editing, and shots that could be pieced together in post-production in order to please many masters. The top-ten box-office performers of the previous year included a Hunger Games movie, a Fast and Furious, a Marvel (Iron Man 3), a DC (Man of Steel), and a Hobbit, not to mention your pick of animated examples.
From the start, the filmmakers behind John Wick — which had a budget in the neighborhood of $20 million, or a tenth of Iron Man 3’s — were working from a different playbook. Like Kolstad, Stahelski cites Leone as inspiration, and his stark, single-minded protagonists couldn’t have been more different from your average superhero. (Except maybe Batman, but Batman’s always the exception.) Stahelski also referenced the protagonists of Akira Kurosawa, and critics have noticed nods to the work of French crime director par excellence Jean-Pierre Melville, whose laconic hit men also live by a rigid honor code.
Most striking of all, though, was the way they decided to shoot it. Instead of the shaky handheld-camera style that had come to dominate contemporary action filmmaking, Stahelski and Leitch wanted to use long takes that would keep the full scope of the fighting right in front of the camera. It’s a variation on the Hong Kong–originated style of “gun fu,” in which guns are treated more or less as a martial art; the progenitors of the form, which include the martial-arts movies of Jackie Chan, the ultraviolent shoot-em-ups of John Woo, and anime like Akira and Ghost in the Shell — all stated influences of Stahelski’s — prioritize clarity of vision and elegance of execution above all else.
“Most of modern-day action, the camera guys have never seen the action before and they’re wiggling around trying to find it and you’ve got five cameramen and you’re going to put all that footage together — that’s not creatively showing something, that’s creatively hiding things,” Stahelski says. “You spend your whole time hiding imperfections: hiding the lights, hiding the set, hiding the bad performances, hiding the stunt guys, hiding the wires, hiding the visual effects.”
To pull off their intended action design, Stahelski and Leitch had to do most of the work in pre-production, bringing their cameramen into rehearsals and heavily choreographing each scene. They drew on a competitive firearm-based martial art called 3-gun to help create Wick’s style, in which he wields the gun like a sword and finishes most of his opponents off in close quarters. And most of all, they needed Reeves to be able to do everything himself.
“When you watch a Jackie Chan movie, you know Jackie Chan is doing the kung fu, you know Jackie Chan jumped off the building. So who do you love? You love Jackie Chan,” Stahelski says. “We wanted to do that with John Wick. And with longer takes, wider shots, seeing the intricate choreography, you get to see Keanu doing all that stuff. Ninety percent of what you see is Keanu Reeves. So do you need any backstory? Do you need another character to open a folder that says, ‘John Wick is a badass?’ Or would you rather just see it? Does Keanu Reeves have any credibility problem with John Wick? No. He is a badass.”
The filmmakers and actor dealt with a common problem of action filmmaking — how do you hide the fact that your lead isn’t doing his own stunts — by eliminating it entirely. Hardly a slouch in the physicality department before John Wick, Reeves was essentially a bona fide stuntman by the end of it. That gave the production the flexibility to show him as much as necessary, without which the directors could never have pulled off their intended style.
But while Stahelski and Leitch’s extensive experience on set, and Reeves’s comfort as a performer, made much of the production easier, all was not well as John Wick set into motion. Because the film was made without a studio attached, it was reliant on multiple sources of funding. “Four days before we started shooting, a chunk of financing just fell out. It just didn’t show up,” Iwanyk says. “I called my lawyer and said, ‘What’s going to happen to me if we pull the plug on the movie?’ And he’s like, ‘The following people are going to sue you,’ and just started listing off names. It was a catastrophe.”
Stahelski says they had to shut down at least twice during pre-production, with Iwanyk essentially holding the ship together with masking tape. And despite their extensive preparation, shooting itself was a race against the clock due to the wide array of locations in the film, as well as the choice to shoot in New York City, a priority of the filmmakers.
“You can’t just say, ‘Oh, we’ll come back here, or we’ll stay a little longer,’ cinematographer Jonathan Sela recalls. “And it took a while to get shots right, because if we didn’t like that turn or that kick or that hit, you’re holding for that long shot, so there were no other angles, no other coverage. We had to capture it the right way, because we had no other way out.”
As much as the style, John Wick’s rich sense of place is what makes it unique; the world of the assassins, with its formality and idiosyncrasies — the suits, the Continental hotel, the killers governed by rules and law — makes the whole operation feel more significant than the usual vendetta. But for that to work, the location was essential. Stahelski compares it to the way Men in Black presented New York as the only place in the world you could hide a world of aliens; it’s also a place where you could hide a world of assassins.
But when they finally reached the editing room, they ran into the ultimate question: the puppy.
In many ways, John Wick hinges on the puppy’s death. Obviously, it’s the story engine for the film that follows, but even more than that, it encapsulates every aspect of the tone. Within the reaction to the death of the puppy, you have the warrior code of Leone and Melville, the stark simplicity of Kolstad’s original vision, and the honesty that attracted Stahelski and Leitch. Cut the puppy out of the film, and you have a stylized exercise in violence; leave the puppy, and you have a wild exploration of morality and retribution.
But that left the filmmakers with the problem of tone. Editing the film, the directors had to decide whether they would commit to the puppy’s death or try to soften it. “I’m not going to lie to you: The first couple cuts of John Wick, the tone was a little like, ‘Whoa, did we go a little too dark here?’” Stahelski recalls. “And then we’re like, ‘Oh my god, we killed a puppy, what the fuck did we do, we killed a fucking puppy, people are going to eat us alive.’ And then we killed poor Alfie Allen! We killed a puppy, we killed a kid, and it’s really John Wick’s fault, we’re fucked. That was pretty much post — I just explained our emotional arc throughout post.”
“We always knew that if the tone was slightly off, the movie could’ve been laughable and, frankly, until we got the right running time for the movie, the movie did feel — laughable is the wrong word, but it felt like, what the fuck is this?” Iwanyk says. “Then one day, we got the tone right. We got the running time right, all of sudden, and it’s weird — it informed the tone and informed everything. Everything fell into place, and we were like, Hey, this is a pretty cool movie.” Iwanyk identified as a major turning point a moment during Stahelski and Leitch’s first preview of the film for audiences. Michael Nyqvist’s big-bad Viggo Tarasov has just called John Leguizamo’s Aurelio to ask why Aurelio had hit Tarasov’s son Iosef (Alfie Allen). Aurelio says, “He stole John Wick’s car and killed his dog.” When Tarasov responded with a simple “Oh,” indicating that he knew exactly why Aurelio had hit Iosef, everybody laughed, and Iwanyk knew they’d nailed it. And, despite their fears, no one walked out when the dog died.
Stahelski attributes the breakthrough to Reeves, always John Wick’s patron saint. “Keanu looked right at us and said, ‘You guys wanted to make a hard-core action movie, right? You wanted to do something genre, outside the box, right? So what’s wrong?’ Good advice. So we went back and adjusted our attitude to being unapologetic, and we just went, ‘John Wick kills 80 guys because of a puppy. Fuck you, we’re done.’ And anything that didn’t have to do with that drive or that character beat, we took out of the movie.”
Even with the spiritual breakthrough, the mood around release was not optimistic; Stahelski and Leitch had already taken second-unit jobs, and Iwanyk was looking for another film. They screened the movie for buyers at the Arclight Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome, and they only managed to attract one offer, from Summit, a subsidiary of Lionsgate. But you only need one company to release a film, and when John Wick started screening, early reviews were ecstatic, to the point that the Wrap published a story wondering what the deal was with this new Keanu Reeves movie that had a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
“I’m still a little unclear about what everybody latched on to, other than we give all the credit to Keanu: They must really love Keanu Reeves,” Stahelski says. And Iwanyk takes it one step further: “That’s Hollywood isn’t it? The irony is that all these acquisitions people saw it, and they all passed. These are the same executives now who are desperately trying to do another John Wick. I don’t get it.”
The mechanizations of the industry might still discourage originality, but John Wick is living proof that audiences respond to what they haven’t seen before — especially if it’s dressed in trappings they understand. On one level, John Wick is and will always be an action movie first and foremost, a film in which Keanu Reeves shoots guys in ways you’ve never seen before. John Wick: Chapter 2 is no different, and presumably, the third will be more of the same. But for fans of its genre, John Wick offers one of the major joys of moviegoing: the chance to see the familiar made new. And if a puppy can be avenged? Even better.